The Mold

During the 19th century, white women were considered second-class citizens and often ignored by white males, society and the government. Some women broke the Victorian mold by marrying a Native and fighting for equal rights.

In 1825, Harriett Gold did the unthinkable.

The 19-year-old white woman committed an abomination—one that would destroy her purity, her life and, most importantly, the family name, according to members of her prominent Cornwall, Conn., family.

So her brother Stephen angrily burned her in effigy on the village green. Town folk mourned as though she had died. A minister’s wife refused to let her sit with the church choir.

Her sin: She intended to marry an American Indian.

“The dye is cast, Harriet is gone, we have reason to fear,” Stephen wrote to relatives that year in a letter later published in “To Marry An Indian,” edited by Theresa Strough Gaul. “Yes. She has told Mr Harvy that she is engaged to that indian E. and that she is determined to marry him. O!! dear!!!”

Fifty years into the American democracy, Gold and her husband, Elias Boudinot, belonged to groups with virtually no legal rights. One was a Cherokee man and the other a white woman — both second-class citizens to white males.

And Gold was hardly alone. Throughout most of the 19th century, white women—the Harriett Golds, Lucretia Motts and Amelia Stewart Knights—often were ignored by their male counterparts, society and the government. Most served one purpose: be ladies—silent, subservient, invisible ladies.

“It was very much a Victorian standard of ladies in the parlor,” said Linda Reese, a former professor at East Central University in Ada, Okla. “Church-going, educated, party-giving ladies.”

The dye is cast, Harriet is gone, we have reason to fear. Yes. She has told Mr Harvy that she is engaged to that indian E. and that she is determined to marry hi. O!! Dear!!! Stephen Gold,
1825 Letter to Relatives

For some women, the 1800s brought new opportunities, though that depended largely on social status, religion and geographical location. Activists, including Lucretia Mott, advocated for women’s suffrage. Pioneers like Amelia Stewart Knight traveled to the American West with her husband and seven children, while pregnant.

But throughout the 19th century, certain experiences of white women often were universal. Among them:

• The public considered women inferior to men.

• Society expected women to be ladies.

• Society expected women to marry only white men in order to preserve “whiteness.”

• Their husbands ignored them, as roles dictated the man made all decisions.

• The government ignored them, as law dictated women could not vote, own land or run for office.

“The status of women in the 19th century is as chattel property,” summed up William W. Savage, a U.S. history professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Two centuries later, these themes still have implications. Women now can vote, own land and run for office. Although no women served in the U.S. Senate in the 19th century, 20 women—the most ever—now are U.S. senators. Still, that’s only 20 percent of the Senate representing a group that comprises 52 percent of the population. In the third quarter of 2013, women earned 82.4 percent of what their male counterparts earned, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, women headed 18 of the 500 largest U.S. corporations in 2012, or 3.6 percent.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began,” President Barack Obama said in his 2013 inaugural address. “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”


Harriett Gold was pious, amiable and cultured—“the nearest to perfection of any person,” as one townswoman described her, according to “To Marry an Indian.”Harriet Gold She was the youngest daughter of Col. Benjamin Gold, a merchant-farmer and patriarch of a well-known Congregationalist family.

Like her older siblings and women across the country, she was expected to marry a well-to-do white spouse.

“(Women) were supposed to be the helpmates of the men and to care for the children,” said Patti Jo King, assistant professor of American Indian history and studies at the University of North Dakota and a member of the Cherokee Nation. “Outside of that, they had no political power, they had no say in anything. They were under the rule of their husbands, and, of course, the rule of thumb.”

But then Gold started corresponding with an Indian.

Elias Boudinot had attended Cornwall’s Foreign Mission School, which was meant to “civilize heathens.” (Students at the school were encouraged to socialize with Cornwall citizens, in hopes they would learn white values.) A Cherokee known as Gallegina (the Buck), he was born in 1804 in Georgia, the same area the Cherokees later ceded under a treaty that Boudinot signed.  In 1822, after completing school, his poor health forced him to return to the Cherokee Nation. He started corresponding with a young white woman named Harriett he had met at the Foreign Mission School.

During that time, another marriage triggered a scandal in Cornwall. John Ridge, the son of a Cherokee chief, announced his love for Sarah Northup, a white woman. Ridge also had attended the Foreign Mission School. In response, Isaiah Bunce, editor of The American Eagle, a newspaper published in Litchfield, Conn., condemned the announcement of marriage, referring to Northrup as “her who has made herself a squaw, and connected herself to a race of Indians.”

Despite the scandal, Ridge and Northup married in 1825. Later that year, Gold became engaged to Boudinot, the announcement of which received national attention in newspapers.

“We see no reason for her selecting a husband from among the red men of the forest, while there are so many white men among us in single blessedness,” an editorial in the Raleigh Register and North-Carolina State Gazette stated on July 29, 1825.

Gold’s reply to the attention, according to a relative: “We have vowed and our vows are heard in heaven; color is nothing to me; his soul is as white as mine.”

(Women) were supposed to be helpmates of the men and to care for the children. Outside of that, they had no political power, they had no say in anything. They were under the rule of their husbands, and, of course, the rule of thumb. Patti Jo King, UND Assistant Professor

White women weren’t supposed to have opinions like Gold’s. They were supposed to be part of the “cult of domesticity,” King said, a throwback to European society.

“It’s basically the idea that women have this sphere, and this sphere is the home.”

Once a white woman married to a white man and within this sphere, she became his property. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, more women had jobs outside the home, but they had to turn over their wages to their husbands. A married woman couldn’t sign a contract.

Had Gold married a white man, she would have met this fate. Because she wanted to marry a Native man, however, she couldn’t preserve the “whiteness” of the race, so she became one of “them,” the inferior race.

“It would be highly improper for a woman to marry an Indian buck, because they were expected to be brutal (to the woman),” King said. “She would be a squaw, and it would not be a good thing at all.”

Missionary Women Visit Native Camp

In 1853, Amelia Stewart Knight, her husband, Joel, and their seven children left their Iowa home to travel west in hopes of a new life on unclaimed land. The journey took five months, and Stewart kept a journal throughout the trip.

She was pregnant the entire time, but didn’t mention that in her journal until the baby is born shortly before the family reached its Oregon destination.

As more and more settlers traveled west, the changing of gender roles became necessary for survival. Some government acts, such as the 1862 Homestead Act, allowed single, widowed, divorced or deserted women to acquire 160 acres of land. For the married women not allowed to acquire land, seeking new opportunities meant traveling with their husbands.

In the year after she and her family embarked on their journey west, Knight wrote of searching for water, bartering with Indians and being scared when one of her children fell under a wheel.

“Thursday, July 21st – Very warm, traveled 25 miles yesterday and camped after dark one-half mile from Snake River. Crossed Salmon River about noon today and are now traveling down Snake River, till we reach the ferry. Afternoon – Came 12 miles and have camped close to the fer-ry. Our turn will come to cross in the night. Have to pay 4 dollars a wagon, cross on a ferry boat, and swim the stock, which is a very hard job, on such a large river. Indians all around our wagons.”

Historians’ opinions vary on whether Americans should feel sorry for these pioneer women. Savage says yes.

“A lot of women lost their minds,” he said. “Did men go crazy? Sure. But the husbands at least got to walk behind the mule.”

Historian Patricia Limerick disagreed.

However, historian Patricia Limerick  “The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West,” Limerick writes that “in terms of endurance and stamina, Mrs. Knight was clearly the equal—if not the better—of the Kit Carsons and the Jedediah Smiths.” Knight rarely complains, even as she and her children are forced to walk while going through a forest or when she and her husband are both sick.

“It seems illogical to feel sorry for her, when she appears not to have felt sorry for herself,” Limerick wrote.

White Missionary Women Visit Native Camp

In 1840, Lucretia Mott met Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the first time at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

The American women later became synonymous with the early women’s rights movement, but at the convention, their gender took precedence over anything else. Male delegates voted that women should be prohibited from participation. The English committee alleged that if women were allowed to participate, it would be mentioned in the newspapers and the convention would be “the subject of ridicule,” both in England and in the United States, Mott’s husband and women’s rights advocate James Mott, wrote in “Three Months in Great Britain.”

“On such flimsy reasons and excuses, the right was assumed to exclude women as delegates, and only admit them as visitors,” he wrote. “But even this was a small advance in the path of freedom, they never before having been admitted to any business meetings.”

The 1800s also brought opportunities for some, like Lucretia Mott, to make significant strides in gaining rights for women, though these strides were often limited to seemingly small victories.

Twenty-one years later, the outbreak of the Civil War allowed women to work outside the home to help with the war effort. An estimated 20,000 women worked for the Union Army, serving as seamstresses, cooks and nurses.Dorothea Dix organized a nursing corps during the Civil War after meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. As superintendent of Woman Nurses, she became the first woman to serve in a federal-level executive position. Despite her organization and high-ranking status, she faced obstacles in the male-dominated field. Surgeons didn’t want females in the workplace, and she clashed with them over hospital protocol and who was hired and fired.Dix’s requirement for nurses illustrates her concern with gender dynamics in hospitals and her wanting to avoid issues of women being harassed by male doctors and soldiers.

“No woman under thirty years need apply to serve in the government hospitals,” Dix announced. “All nurses are required to be very plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, or jewelry, and no hoop skirts.”

The work of those like Dorothea Dix showed some women, previously limited to the sphere of domesticity, that they could venture outside the home, historians said. When the war ended, some of those doors remained opened.

“You almost immediately have a new social dynamic that comes after the Civil War,” said Reese, the former East Central University professor.


Harriet Gold and Elias Boudinot married in 1826 at the Gold home, then moved to the groom’s residence in Georgia, where law prohibited whites from marrying all non-whites. At least five states, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, had laws prohibiting marriage between whites and Indians until the Supreme Court overturned anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.

Uncle Sam Land GrantsGold had six children and tended to the home while Boudinot became increasingly involved in white-Indian affairs. She died in August 1836, about three months after her seventh child was stillborn. She was 31.

In 1834, Gold wrote a letter to her sister, Flora, later published in “To Marry and Indian,” discussing her marriage and the obstacles she had faced as a white woman who did the unthinkable:

“I look back to [my wedding] with pleasure, and with gratitude. Yes I am thankful. I remember the trials I had to encounter—the thorny path I had to tread, the bitter cup I had to drink—but a consciousness of doing right—a kind and affectionate devoted husband, together with many other blessings have made amends for all. Truly I have, ere this, entered upon the ‘sober realities of married life’,—and if tears have been shed for me on that account—I can now pronounce them useless tears.”




Read Another Story

Gena Timberman Vitali